Federal funding fight

Stem Cells Get Big


In March 2009, President Barack Obama issued an executive order that lifted the Bush-era restrictions on federal funding of human embryonic stem cell research. But in August 2010, U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth blocked the funding after concluding that the government's new guidelines violate the 1996 Dickey-Wicker Amendment, which prohibits the use of taxpayer dollars for research that harms human embryos.

The Obama administration reacted swiftly. In September the Justice Department persuaded the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit to temporarily lift Lamberth's order, allowing federal funding to continue for now.

In the midst of this turmoil, the stem cell company Geron announced that it was set to begin testing stem cells in patients with damaged spinal cords. Even more momentous, researchers associated with the Harvard Stem Cell Institute reported that they had developed a technique using RNA that directly transforms skin cells into stem cells with no need for embryos. A week later, the lead Harvard researcher, Derrick Rossi, announced that he had already obtained a first round of financing for his new company ModeRNA to commercially develop the technique.

ModeRNA joins more than 150 private companies already working on stem cell treatments. Federal research funding will always be fickle, especially in controversial areas. But there are other ways to realize the promise of stem cells.